Monday, April 12, 2010

Teaching My Child to Read: What is the Best Way?

My oldest child was extremely eager to learn how to read before she entered kindergarten.  I had never taught anyone how to read before.  I wasn't sure how.  So, since we were opting to send her to public school, I thought we would leave it to the experts and she would be reading in a couple of months. After all, she knew her alphabet and the sounds of the letters very well.

Every day for the first two months or so, she would come home impatient that she had not learned to read yet. In her kindergarten class they worked on the alphabet and the sounds of the letters so that everyone in the class could first master these.  They also worked on learning to write--a lot.  Each day they would busily trace letters on worksheets and copy words from book titles.  But these activities did not seem to be propelling my daughter toward her goal of learning to read words.  These were pre-literacy tasks for the children who still needed them.  Meanwhile, we tried to encourage my daughter to be patient.  The reading would come.

After the first quarter we started hearing a bit about sight words.  Finally!  Perhaps during these weeks of waiting,  I could have taught my daughter to read.  But I felt I lacked the know-how and that she might be bored if she were suddenly able to read while the many in the class lagged behind.  So we let it be.  Oh, we still read together every day, just like we were told we should and wanted to do anyway.  My daughter was constantly writing words, asking us to spell them.  But at six years old, she was still on the cusp of reading, not quite there yet.

Neither my husband nor I quite remember how we learned to read. My husband is a doctoral student in the field of education, and he has said that from everything he has read, literacy is still, in some ways, a "black box."  No one knows exactly how that threshold of being able to read is crossed.  But after observing the process my daughter went through, he and I are in agreement about some of the practices that might slow down the learning-to-read process.

1. The emphasis on writing.  Based on our experience and knowledge of language education, writing is the most difficult of the four skills to master.  The receptive skills (listening and reading) are easier than productive skills (speaking and writing).  So we think that just like children understand what they hear before they are able to speak, they can be taught to read before they need to write.

2. The approach of sounding it out.   Slowly sounding out the letters is not always the most effective or efficient way to tackle new words.  If children are used to hearing the word, when they try to read it, they can use a variety of clues to say or even guess the word without focusing on each and every letter.

So there.  This is my emerging philosophy of how reading should be taught.  I have much to learn still, and I would love to know what more experienced parents and teachers have to say on the matter.  Perhaps I'll do things a little differently with my second and third child as my knowledge and confidence grow.  Or maybe now that my oldest knows how to read, she'll be able to teach her siblings. I wouldn't be surprised if she did.

Have you taught a child or children to read?  What do you think is the best way for a child to learn how?

This post is linked to the Moms' 30 Minute Blog Challenge at Steady Mom.


Unknown said...

I haven't taught a child to read because my oldest is 3 3/4 years old, but this was very interesting. The commentary on the focus on writing was particularly thought-provoking since it seems to me that a lot of the popular early literacy activities focus on tracing letters, etc.

Katie Olthoff said...

Hmm...I'm an elementary educator, and I never thought about writing slowing down the reading process. It kind of makes sense, though.

I am a 4th-6th Title I Reading teacher. And as for sounding it out, I agree that strategy can sometimes mislead students. By the time the kids with reading disabilities get to me, they are encountering words that are impossible to "sound out" phonetically. But it is only ONE strategy. Others are to think about what makes sense there, know sight words, look for smaller words within the word, etc. For young children, they can look at the illustration, the word's first sound, and then put them together to figure it out. Older children learn roots, suffixes and prefixes and use them, also.

Teaching reading is HARD WORK. It's not one of those black and white tasks. There's no perfect way, and as a teacher, I often doubt whether I'm doing it correctly, or if what I'm doing is making a difference.

Perhaps focusing on the reading comprehension aspect would make your daughter happier. Talk to her about how the characters feel, what she would do in their shoes, how the book relates to her own life. Read aloud to her, and have her make a "movie" in her mind, without seeing the pictures. Ask her to tell you what the story was about. Those are comprehension strategies that will carry her throughout her life as a good reader!

For the Love of Naps - Sarah said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
For the Love of Naps - Sarah said...

As a first grade teacher, who is currently taking time off to be home with my boys, I can't encourage you enough to keep fostering your daughters excitement to read. By doing all the things she shows interest in (whether it is writing or listening or reading) she will be reading in no time.

I don't think you should "not" work on things with her because you don't want her to be bored at school. If she has a great teacher - the teacher should offer opportunities that meet the needs of all learners.

All kids learn differently and so most teachers try to include a variety of learning strategies.

Your ideas are strong and make sense - don't be afraid to ask her teacher for some strategies to work with her on at home. Sounding out is important but so is site words...whole language vs. ongoing battle.

The best for all children is one on one time or small group and as much exposure to many types of literature and lots of reading together - all things I am sure you are doing!

Good luck!

Kim & Dave said...

I think you are RIGHT ON (& my degree is in Elemntary Ed., & I am homeschooling our oldest.)

These are actually some of the reasons they taught us that kids have trouble learning to read.

Aiming4Simple said...

These comments have been really beneficial! Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to chime in and share your thoughts!


Hannah said...

I've had two so far learn to read (the second actually still not quite independent) and the process has been so different for each of them that I'm convinced there is no right way for all children. The answer is surely a happy middle ground between the phonics-only folks and the whole-language folks. I will say that one thing that made it so much easier with my first was that he was very passionate about something: dinosaurs. That motivated him to want to read his dinosaur books, which he was poring over all the time anyway. He wanted the dinosaur Easy Readers, too, because they were about his favorite topic, and were a stepping stone to the tougher books.

Good topic!

Unknown said...

Found your site via the '30 min. blog challenge'...I have been a home-school mom to three girls for almost 6 years. My girls are in 6th, 4th, and 1st. I taught all of them how to read, and I have definitely learned as I went along. I def. think that their personalities differ, which will cause them to receive teachings in different ways. I found that the book "Teach your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons" was great because it taught them to sight read, and not to sound it out. Phonics are ok, but the English language doesn't prove to be very reliable in that sense. My oldest absolutely LOVES to read. She devours books. She's read 'Pride and Prejudice' like 8 or 9 times. My middle LIKES to read. I just make sure I always offer a book she'll enjoy, besides the required reading for school. She loves the classics...'Little Women'...'The Three Musketeers' for example. My little one also LOVES it. No problem there. She's doing a study on 'The Dragon's Hoard' from Progeny Press over the summer. As a home-school mom, I require them to read every day... the min. time is according to age. I know this comment is crazy long, and I apologize if I've bored you. It's an important subject, and I've invested in it. Writing is important, absolutely, but not more, or less than reading, in my opinion. For really early readers, I also recommend 'Bob Books'. They're everywhere online. Hope I helped!
Janine at:

se7en said...

I'm teaching my fifth child to read and we always start by reading through "Learn to read in 100 lessons" - not 100 days by any means!!! At the end of this they are really able to read well but it takes them a while to figure out that they can... so they will look at books and "read" them and then one day they will really just discover they can read on their own - the awakening!!! And I love the in between stage when they read everything they see, every sign, every label, every everything!!! The best thing for teaching kids to read - by miles, is to just read to them endlessly - they really do pick it up!!!

Becky Chau said...

I agree there are many ways to discover reading. I homeschool and thought i'd teach my daughter to read through a more holistic approach by providing all four of the language skills in a realistic way BUT she was drawn to phonics books, specifically Explode the Code. It's funny how our thoughts are not their thoughts. So we combined our efforts and ended up at the same place: reading.

I love listening to her read to her sister. Ah!

Becky in Hanoi

Becky Chau said...

I agree there are many ways to discover reading. I homeschool and thought i'd teach my daughter to read through a more holistic approach by providing all four of the language skills in a realistic way BUT she was drawn to phonics books, specifically Explode the Code. It's funny how our thoughts are not their thoughts. So we combined our efforts and ended up at the same place: reading.

I love listening to her read to her sister. Ah!

Becky in Hanoi

Jennifer Jo said...

I work on teaching reading with my kids here and there, but mostly I just wait. When they're ready to learn, they will.

For my son, the light went on when he was nine. My daughter is almost nine and she still hasn't caught on yet. It's hard for me to watch her, mostly because she so badly wants to learn. I can't imagine the pain she would be going through if she were in school. (And like my husband went through---it scarred him for life.)

How do I "teach" them to read? We use Explode the Code books (here and there), the Amish readers, and I read out loud to my kids all the time. Having the confidence to be patient is sometimes hard for me, but I'm convinced that kids learn on their own time table and no one else's.

(Here's a link to one of my posts on this very subject:

Amy said...

I found your post and the comments very interesting. At 18 months old, my daughter loves language and is already starting to learn many of the alphabet letters and their sounds, so I suspect she may learn to read early. Great to hear others' experiences.

Miss Dipsy said...

Over here in the UK, we have completely the opposite approach to learning to read, to the extent that some parents & educators complain that children are being taught to read too early! At age 4, my children were coming home from school with lists of 100 high-frequency words they were expected to have learnt by the end of their first year, and they progressed surprisingly quickly onto reading simple stories. A child in the UK who isn't reading by 6 would be a cause for concern. But then again we start our formal education earlier.

I'd done a lot of reading with my children before they started school and they had been to good nurseries where a lot of the pre-literacy skills had been encouraged, so they were further ahead than some children in their class (e.g. they could read several words and recognise all of the letters). However, I never felt that this was a disadvantage. Any child with parents who place a high value on learning is bound to go over material they already know in school quite regularly; that shouldn't stop the parents teaching them! Young children can tolerate quite a lot of repetition (as any parent who has had to endure a favourite film, story or song over and over again can testify!) and it just reinforces their learning. The chances are the school wouldn't be teaching things in the same way you would anyway, so it wouldn't feel like going over the same ground too much.

The trouble I can see with the waiting until they're older is that the books they really want to read will be too difficult for a beginning reader. "Learning to read" books are usually very boring story-wise, and in my experience a six year old wants something a little more exciting!

There are advantages & disadvantages to both approaches. Some children are pushed into reading before they are really ready, but for an intelligent child who is eager to read it seems a shame not to get them reading as soon as they are ready. There is so much joy to be found in a good book!